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Baseball is not all Greek for Kottaras August 1, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Baseball Handball Volleyball.
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The late-blooming catcher climbs the Padres’ ladder, and will join the Beavers after the All-Star break.

If he weren’t a Canadian who once left the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards to play for Greece in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, this would be one of the tougher itineraries for catcher George Kottaras.

Kottaras played in the All-Star Futures Game at PNC Park on Sunday. From here, he will go to Montgomery, Ala., for today’s Southern League All-Star Game, then to Portland on Wednesday, where he will be one step away from the San Diego Padres on the organizational ladder.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t play baseball until he was 15 and wasn’t drafted until the 20th round.

Kottaras, 23, ranked by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in the Padres system, will begin the second half of the season with the Beavers, who begin a four-game series against Tacoma on Thursday at PGE Park. This will give Portland fans another look at a top prospect in 2006, following pitchers Cesar Carrillo (although he threw only 22/3 innings before elbow trouble) and Jared Wells.

“I’m just going to try to carry it over,” said Kottaras, who hit .276 with eight home runs and a .394 on-base percentage for the Double A Mobile (Ala.) Bay Bears. “Just have fun with it — that’s what you have to do in baseball, you can’t overanalyze.”

Kottaras had fun Sunday, going 2 for 2 with a home run and a double and two runs scored in his 31/2 innings for the World team in a 8-5 loss to the U.S. team.

“My first at-bat, I had so much adrenaline and was so far out of my normal self,” said Kottaras, who was facing upper-90s “hairy” fastballs from the U.S. staff. “I just told myself to relax and do what I could do. And I did well.”

With a squat stance and a short, smooth left-handed stroke, Kottaras doubled off Cincinnati Reds prospect Homer Bailey and hit a 406-foot home run to right-center off Philip Hughes, the top prospect of the New York Yankees.

Against Bailey, a pitcher with an ill-fitting first name but a 97-mph fastball, Kottaras hit a line drive to the right field fence. He scored on a double by Los Angeles Dodgers prospect Chin Lung Hu, a slick-fielding shortstop who was the subject of numerous pregame yuks for his inability to play first base.

The names in the Futures Game — the World team had a pitcher named Edgar Martinez — may be novelty now, but many will be household names shortly. Last year’s Futures Game in Detroit featured 20 players who are now regulars in the major leagues, including pitchers Francisco Liriano (Minnesota) and Justin Verlander (Detroit) and hitters Jeff Francoeur (Atlanta), Josh Barfield (San Diego and formerly of the Beavers) and current Seattle Mariners shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.

The first seven Futures Games produced 137 players who were in the major leagues this season. Seven of this year’s major league All-Stars — Lance Berkman, Mark Buehrle, Miguel Cabrera, B.J. Ryan, Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells and Barry Zito — once played in the Futures Game.

And Sunday was a rare offensive outburst for the Futures Game, not just by Kottaras. By the third inning, when the U.S. team led 7-1, the teams already had scored more runs than in any of the previous seven games. The teams combined for 20 hits in the seven-inning game.

Kottaras is from Markham, Ontario, near Toronto, the son of Greek parents, “Greek-Canadian, or Canadian-Greek, either way you want to put it,” he said. He spent his youth on the diamond — playing fast-pitch softball. On the fast track to San Diego, Kottaras obviously wasn’t hurt by the late start or by the difference between fast-pitch softball and the slower-arriving pitches in baseball.

“Reacting to pitches, it helps out a lot with that,” said Kottaras, who was drafted by the Padres in 2002 out of Connors (Okla.) State College, opting for a professional career over a scholarship offer from the University of Florida.

And the late start put less wear and tear on the legs, a concern for catchers, especially those on the smaller side such as the 6-foot, 180-pound Kottaras.

Kottaras’ manager for Sunday’s game was former major league pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, who was born in Chatham, Ontario, and became the first Canadian enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Jenkins knows about late-starting baseball careers — he didn’t play more than once a week until he was 18.

Jenkins never had a serious arm injury or even a sore arm in his 19-year major league career despite a workload that included 325 innings and 30 complete games with the Chicago Cubs in 1971.

“I played a lot of hockey as a kid and basketball,” said the 6-foot-5 Jenkins, who didn’t pitch until he was 16. “And when I started playing baseball, I was a first baseman. I’m not sure it didn’t help my arm.”

And in the midst of a whirlwind week, Kottaras, too, is making up for lost time.

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